Crisis, critique and contemplation

The inspiration for this blog come from reading a paper by Boggs and Mitchell (2018) who describe how the consensus of the current ‘crisis’ in higher education is papering over important debates which challenge the image of the university as ‘a good in itself, as an institution defined ultimately by the progressive nature at its core’ (2018: 434). Rather than enabling us to explore the university as it is shaped by and shapes the current social, economic and political landscape ‘the crisis consensus invokes the university as the protector of time-honored and -tested values’ (2018: 434) .

Boggs and Mitchell draw on a range of texts that approach this debate from different critical perspectives, including discussion of imperialism, power, economics, gender, class and race.  The reader is made painfully aware of how universities are reinforcing patterns of inequality and injustice. The historical perspective provided makes us aware that universities have been sites of the ‘production, legitimation, and dissemination of dominant ideas for emerging generations of the colonial elite’ (Boggs and Mitchell 2018: 451) and that slavery was perpetuated by this knowledge.

On reading this paper I had to note that I have been stuck somewhat in an idealised view of the ‘university’; as an organisation there to serve the public good through the creation of knowledge and the creation of educated, ethical citizens. In my mind, universities were good but were now being corrupted by neoliberal forces. I have found the development of Critical University Studies incredibly helpful for my own thinking and this paper is a valuable addition. It made me think more broadly about what we actually mean when we refer to the university. It is not that I want to lose sight of what the university could be, but I don’t want this hope to come at the expense of seeing it as it is (to the extent that this is ever possible!).

How is this relevant to contemplative pedagogy? Well, in the conclusion to the paper, given their observations, they discuss what we might do. It was in reading this that I recognised much of what we are already doing under the label of ‘contemplative pedagogy’. They draw out the importance of small acts in areas where we do have (at least some) freedom within academic life – how we design our classes, our courses, stage protests, express creativity. They cite Ferguson (2012: 232) who states that we need to engage in small acts that permit us to:

“imagine critical forms of community, forms in which minoritized subjects become the agents rather than the silent operations of knowledge formations and institutional practices”

Furthermore, they emphasise solidarity and collective effort. I feel that the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium in August was a form of critical community in which we (perhaps I should only speak for myself!) felt that we were more than cogs in a machine. There was a genuine, collective valuing of each other that enabled meaningful exploration of difference and power, that felt restorative. There are other examples where contemplative practice has been used to develop critical community, such as the use of mindfulness practice within the ‘Common Room’ initiative developed by Dr Steven Stanley at Cardiff University.

The authors conclude that we need to develop:

“avenues for imagining the university in relationship to social transformation from the minor and intimate workings of the classroom to the totality of the form of US higher education” (Boggs and Mitchell 2018: 462)

I would argue that for this to be meaningful, it requires individual educators to sense what it is that they deeply value and wish to manifest in what they do and the institutions they work within. Contemplative practice in many different forms can help in this regard, it can also help to support us when we feel drained and disillusioned. Not only that, contemplative practice can also make us more sensitive to the complex and interrelated factors that have led us to our current predicament and the part that we have played in that process. Rather than demanding simple answers, which do not exist, contemplative practice provides a space to hold complexity and apparent contradiction. I felt that the environment created at the symposium was testament to these possibilities.

I have in no way done justice to the nuanced arguments of this paper and these thoughts reflect only my initial response to it. I would highly recommended you read it yourselves. I’d welcome any discussion about it or regarding connections between contemplative pedagogy and critical university studies more generally.

Warm wishes

Caroline

References

Abigail Boggs, & Nick Mitchell. (2018). Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus. Feminist Studies, 44(2), 432-463. https://0-www-jstor-org.serlib0.essex.ac.uk/stable/10.15767/feministstudies.44.2.0432

Roderick A. Ferguson. (2012). The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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